The virginal, well-educated white chick.
The sassy, promiscuous black woman.
I didn’t know whether to laugh or to cry while I watched these hackneyed tropes play out on the musical stage through the characters of Katherine (Plumber) Pullitzer and Medda Larkin in the 2017 Disney version of the Broadway show, Newsies, written by Harvey Fierstein. While I observed the representation of gender and sexuality amongst the only two lead females in the musical (and debated whether or not to call my therapist to work through my dismay), I couldn’t help but notice a clear intersectionality between each character’s expression of womanhood and her race. It seemed glaringly obvious to me that the intellect, substance, and purity so characteristic of Katherine’s femininity are enabled by her whiteness, and, conversely, the boldness, vulgarity, and ostentatiousness of Medda’s womanly role are spurred on by anti-black stereotypes. While both ladies’ expressions of femininity are infused with radical strength amidst a patriarchal setting, the two women assert their individual identities, degrees of personal value, and sexual positionalities in very different, very racialized ways.
Let’s start with this doe-eyed ray of sunshine (*eye-roll*).
Katherine, played by Kara Lindsay, claims power through her witty comebacks, withholding demeanor, professional acumen, and substantive contribution to the world around her. As Jack openly pursues a romance with her, she maintains a flirty hesitance for an obnoxiously long portion of the show and responds to his efforts with snappy retorts like, “Oh somewhere out there, someone cares…Oh! Go tell them!” While these sarcastic quips in the script serve as proof that she can keep up with the smarts of the men around her (gross but true), they also establish that she has standards and therefore value. She is not a woman who will take any arm that is offered to her because she’s simply too good for that.
In fact, she’s so good that she has substance and identity apart from her relation to male characters. Through her journalism career, Katherine has a vision attached to her intellectual abilities and a purpose removed from the era’s norms of domestication, marriage, and motherhood. While her father greedily attempts to stop the newsies in their fight for justice, she possesses a tenacious–and somewhat rebellious–belief that her story can get on the newspaper’s front page and help win the battle for fairer occupational treatment. When Jack asks her if she is following him, she responds with,
“The only thing I’m chasing is a story.”
Amidst all of this ambition and strength, however, there seems to be a subtle commitment to keeping Katherine palatable for the audience. It’s as if lyricist Jack Fieldman and composer Alan Menkin looked at her character, thought to themselves, “She’s the white, pretty, thin one, so she’s supposed to play the charming female role; let’s make her a little more fragile so people like her,” and then created, “Watch What Happens.”
During the solo, Katherine sings, “Thousands of children, exploited, invisible, speak up, take a stand…”, adopting a nurturing, almost maternal role that allows her to settle into a more traditional frame of femininity. The lyrics, “Write what you know so they say, all I know is I don’t know what to write or the right way to write it!” reveal her waning sense of confidence, and the use of repetition hints at her ruminative thought pattern. The consistently quick tempo of the song adds in an element of rushed nervousness, and Kara Lindsay’s breathless talk-singing (interrupted periodically by her shrill vibrato) clearly indicates Katherine’s frazzled state. All of these artistic choices establish insecurity to offset Kat’s confident façade and help her serve as the Caucasian good girl everyone wants to see.
Speaking of being a “good girl,” Katherine’s sexuality–or rather, her lack thereof–consistently places her in a white light of innocence and purity. She repeatedly dodges Jack’s flirtatious advances with her characteristic, dignified restraint and responds with discomfort to communications of sensuality. For example, when she asks Jack what he wants and he responds steamily with, “Can’t you see it in my eyes?” Katherine’s shocked facial expression and stammering answer of “Yeah, okayyyy,” reveal how she is taken aback by even slight innuendos.
However, this dismissive attitude is coupled with subtle flirtation, allowing Katherine to fit into society’s ideal of femininity: the woman who won’t give “it” up easily but wants “it” deep down. During Jack’s hokey number, “I Never Planned On You,” she gazes at him with girlish naivete and batting eyelashes, and her buried desire is further insinuated through the gasp of glee she lets out when she finds the portrait he drew of her (to be fair, I would gasp if Jeremy Jordan sketched my face, too). When the pair later engage in a heated argument, Katherine makes the bold move to kiss Jack, confirming her true passion.
Now, this could be my propensity to psychoanalyze, but I think such a gutsy act not only reveals her love but also her repressed sexuality– if it takes the emotional extreme of anger to push her toward one of the mildest forms of physical intimacy, then she is SERIOUSLY chaste…like preeminently pure.
And I think that’s what we, as the audience, are supposed to think of Katherine Pullitzer. Angelic, white Katherine Pullitzer.
Now, time for some Medda-tation (I’m sorry).
Ms. Medda Larkin, played by Aisha de Haas, asserts dominance through her gaudy presence, affinity for men and money, and excessive confidence. Her distinctive aura is perhaps best characterized through her solo number “That’s Rich” wherein she sassily taunts men from the Burlesque stage she owns. While she openly brags about her wealthy status proclaiming, “Cause, honey, there’s one thing you ain’t that I’ll always be, and honey, yeah, that’s right, that’s rich!” the wideness of her eyes, growl in her vocal tonality, and drawn-out nature of her chest vibrato make her character come across as a bit abrasive.
Jazz instruments including the saxophone, trombone, and French horn combine to create a seductive melodic backdrop for the performance, and this risqué scene classifies her as someone who (*cough*) enjoys the presence of men. In contrast to Katherine’s rejection of male attention, Medda feels very liberated to share that she’ll
“…learn to make do with the mansion, the oil well, the diamonds, the yacht, with Andy, Eduardo, the pontiff and Scott…”
In addition to categorizing her as a gold-digger, this lyric points to Medda’s lack of standards, and, consequently, establishes her as having less worth than her picky, white counterpart.
Though Fieldman and Menkin seemed to purposefully dilute Katherine’s boldness to make her more likable, certainly no one behind the scenes put forth the same effort for Medda. It’s as if they saw no possible compatibility between idealized feminine characteristics and a heavy-set black woman, so they instead embraced a narrow caricature–one of shallow identity, excessive expression, and flagrant materialism. To put it simply, they intentionally made her “a little too much.” For example, while Katherine finds her identity in her work, Medda’s personhood is driven by the empty entities of money and sex. While Katherine’s bodily comportment is consistent with timid, inward movement, Medda’s motions are aggressively expansive with outstretched arms, wide shoulders, and a dominating stance. While Katherine is dressed in conservative, simple garb that portrays her as clean and dignified, Medda’s outfits are characterized by outrageous feathers, jewels, hats, and other embellishments that mirror her personal exorbitance. All of these factors place Medda outside the realm of what is considered desirable or even acceptable.
Additionally, unlike the pure and honorable maiden discussed before, the script reduces Medda to a stereotypical Jezebel.
On top of the fact that she owns a burlesque house, innuendos serve as Medda’s main contribution to conversation, and she openly expresses her sexual promiscuity, regardless of context. Even upon meeting the esteemed figure of Teddy Roosevelt, she suggestively remarks, “Come along, Governor, and show me that backseat I’ve been hearing so much about.” When little Les is admiring the scantily-clad Bowery Beauties, she commands the person who’s shielding his view to “Step out of his way so he’s can take a better look,” encouraging lustful viewership in the young boy. This relational boldness translates to the stage where she physically embodies eroticism by swaying her hips side to side and seductively caressing her body.
Each of these examples epitomize how her way of being is, by nature, countercultural and vaguely uncomfortable.
We, as the audience, come to know Ms. Medda Larkin–bold, black Medda Larkin–as deviant. And perhaps we’re supposed to.
So, what are we left with after all this discussion?
Still the virginal, educated white chick.
Still the sassy, promiscuous black woman.
But, we can at least rest in the assurance that we’ve viewed Newsies and its two lead female characters through a critical lens–that we’ve sorted through its harmful representations of black versus white womanhood; that we’ve illuminated the frequently-overlooked intersections of race, gender, and sexuality; and that we’ve pointed out the oppressive conventions which prejudice works so hard to keep hidden. Perhaps with this fresh awareness, our generation can create entertainment products that are just as playful, engaging, and insightful as Newsies but with fewer angels, fewer deviants, and more richly-portrayed characters of color.